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New School, Friend Blues: Navigating Lonely Tween Trouble

New School, Friend Blues: Navigating Lonely Tween Trouble

By Mir Kamin

Are the holidays over? Did everyone survive? Yes? Time to come out of my cave of family and cookies and rejoin society!

And just in time, too—I had a reader question come in which I think a lot of parents are going to find familiar.

S writes:

I’m wondering how much I should be intervening for my 11-year-old daughter for getting together with kids from her new school. She has had to make all new friends as she switched schools this past September while her friends went on to other schools for middle school.

I have reached out to a few moms and put together a few get-togethers since she started at her new school. I asked a couple moms if their daughters would like to come over for an afternoon, and they have happily accepted. I also put together a couple of group outings that seemed to go well, too. Unfortunately, none of those invitation have ever been reciprocated, and she has never been invited over to her classmates’ house after school or to any other get-togethers. I understand that people are busy and kids have very busy lives, too. However, when I ask my daughter to invite her friends over, many times those invitations go unanswered and I feel so bad for her. She has participated in school plays, Girl Scouts, and band… so its not like she hasn’t tried hard to integrate into the school and make friends outside of class. So I’m wondering, how much I should be trying to help her get together with her new classmates outside of school without becoming that “pushy” mom? I feel so bad because her old friends have made new friends but she seems to be struggling to find her social place with her classmates outside of school.

S, let me start by saying that I think your daughter is lucky to have you in her corner. It sounds like you’re in tune with her, ready to help, but also mindful of the potential to overstep as she navigates this next chapter. Whatever happens here, your kiddo is obviously in good hands! Next, I want to see if we can unpack some of this. There’s a lot going on in the little bit you’ve shared, and I don’t want to grill you or make assumptions, so I’ll try to cover potential issues/points and leave it to you to determine what applies to your situation and what doesn’t.

1) Confirm your assessment is your kid’s reality.

The very first piece of advice I give in nearly every situation like this is that parents take a moment to breathe and consider who’s upset here, and how extreme any distress is. I’m not saying this is true in your situation, mind you, but I sometimes get questions from parents who are upset about something going on with a kid—whether it be a perceived lack of friendship, like this, or something else—and it turns out that the kid is perfectly happy. Your note is entirely about your reactions/emotions in light of what’s happening, and so while I assume you are concerned because your daughter is upset, I encourage you to just do a quick assessment of where she is with all of this. You’re certainly perceiving difficulties/slights, but is she? If she is, read on. But if she still seems happy/engaged (read: she is eating and sleeping well, performing as expected in school, engaging in activities she enjoys, her mood seems generally stable, and is just being a little less social than she was at her old school), it could be that you just need to step back and let her find her own groove. Some kids do the bulk of their out-of-school socializing online. Some kids are happy to hang out with others but equally happy when it doesn’t happen. If she is distressed over what you’re describing, that’s a problem. If she’s not, well, I see why it bothers you, but you may just need to work on letting it go. Make sense?

Bear in mind, too, the context for this scenario (to which I am not privy, but you can and should step back and look at the big picture). Did she switch schools because you moved? Were there other life upheavals that came along with the school switch? Has she ever switched schools before and is this time different, somehow, or is this the first time she’s had to do this? Was she constantly having playdates before and none now? Is she still hanging out with her old friends on the weekends, and is she the kind of kid for whom that may be “enough” for now? Even a simple “we bought a new house a few streets over” can be a big change for a kid, but if you were downsizing because of a lost job or divorce or other life issue, that’s more stress going in to this school change, and could make a kid slower to adapt. What’s more, 11 is one of those tricky transition ages. Middle school is a rough time for many (we refer to it as the Hunger Games of childhood, in my house) even without changing schools. These are all things to think about while you decide how to proceed.

2) When and how do you intervene?

Okay, so with all of that out, let’s talk about your actual question, which is how you know when/how/how often to intervene. At one end of the possible spectrum, you have a daughter who is not being invited places but is happy and unbothered, and—as already mentioned—if that’s the reality, you let this go and work on accepting that while you wish things were different, this particular set of circumstances does not require your intervention. At the other end of the possible spectrum, you have a daughter who is dangerously depressed, lonely, and withdrawn, in which case (if this was the reality, which I suspect it is not!) you would need to seek immediate intervention in the form of medical care, therapy, etc. My guess is that your reality falls somewhere in that massive gray area between these two extremes: most likely, your daughter is a little sad and lonely and you’re wishing you could make this easier.

3) What to do right now?

Keep the lines of communication open.

Ask your daughter how she’s feeling, what she’s enjoying, what she wishes could be different. Her answers might surprise you. For example, it would not be outside the realm of expected 11-year-old girl behavior for a child who is encouraged by her mother to invite friends over to be… less than entirely truthful about what happened next. Maybe she never invited them (either because she’s happy on her own or out of fear of rejection). Maybe she invited them and they said no for some reason (whether innocuous or hurtful) and she was worried you’d get upset, so she said she never heard back. Maybe she’s using the wrong medium for invitations (maybe she emails when everyone else texts, or she asked in person at school when a fellow 11-year-old is only going to remember to ask at home if they get a phone call or a text at home). Maybe she said, “Hey, wanna hang out sometime?” and the other kid said “Sure!” and then neither of them got the details and so nothing happened. I don’t know, but it’s possible that you don’t, either. Make sure there’s a safe space for her to be honest with you. If you have concerns about her adjustment overall and feel that she’s keeping things from you, check in with her teachers to get another perspective.

Let her know she calls these shots.

Let me stress that I don’t think you’ve done anything “wrong” here—in fact, it sounds like you did everything right, to me—but it’s time to step back and let your daughter take the reins. If she’s okay with less socialization (again, with the caveat that she is not showing signs of depression or other difficulty), you be okay with it, too. That’s her choice. If she wants more but is having trouble making it happen, brainstorm together. Role-play to give her practice on how to approach new friends or ask someone over. See if there are other activities she’s never tried which she’s interested in checking out, and (within reason/budget/schedule) support her in exploring new venues. Ask her what she’d change if she had a magic wand, and then help her pick “doable” bits to set as achievable goals.

Believe in her.

Again, there’s a lot I don’t know here, and I’m not saying you’re doing any of this, but sometimes when a parent is worried about a child, a vicious cycle begins where said child has an issue, the parent despairs, the child picks up on that despair and sinks deeper, the parent becomes even more worried, etc. The tightrope between appropriate vigilance and creating a safe place to explore and grow (and possibly go splat—because we learn from splats!) is the eternal parental conundrum, but often the best gift you can give a struggling child is the message that you believe they can handle this. Continue living your own life. Be compassionate and watchful with your daughter without sending her the message that “something is terribly wrong” or “this is awful.” Help if she asks for help. Probe when necessary to make sure she’s okay. And let her know that no matter what, you’ve got her back, but regardless—she’s got this.

Readers! Don’t forget that you can submit your own burning questions to alphamomteens [at] gmail [dot] com!

Photo source: Depositphotos/lisafx 


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About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • disqus_Hnp7vpBUHT

    January 9, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    Minus the school switch situation (though his school is so big each grade means a new social circle), I find this happening quite a bit-I issue a lot of invites and they’re accepted and enjoyed, but rarely initiated/reciprocated. For us, I think it’s clearly an only child versus multiple-child family thing. I feel compelled to fill weekends and school holidays with friends so my only child is not so bored/alone. People with multiple kids are happy to drop one kid with you for some free babysitting while they take their other kid/s to sports/activities/friends, but do not reciprocate because they are on the go with the other kids. Additionally, when they do have the downtime at home, the siblings have each other to hang out with, so there’s less compulsion to initiate. It feels unfair, but I’ve come to accept it as a reality of having an only.

    • Caroline Bowman

      January 16, 2018 at 8:44 am

      I get this completely. I actually happen to have 3 boys, 2 of a ”social” sort of age and the reciprocation is the catch. I have decided that if after 2 play dates at our place / at our invitation, there’s none forthcoming, I will not invite again unless there are very specific or unusual circumstances. It’s a version of ”just not that into you”, but for kids, where it’s all fine when there’s something in it for them, but less enthused when they have to host or make any sort of effort. It’s sad, but it does sort things out. It’s also not mean. It gives every opportunity to let a little shoot of friendship develop, but without desperately chasing.

      Of course, some people are less set up or equipped to host play dates, but it’s fairly rare that a family can NEVER host or plan or do something. I get that people work full time, I get that they’re busy and that invitations might be somewhat unusual, but playing free childcare and entertainment over and over is something that annoys me if it goes on too long.

      It’s not just that you have an only child, though that may have some impact, you’re just willing to make more effort…

  • Vickie

    January 10, 2018 at 2:06 am

    One thing I would suggest is to take advantage of her extra free time and do a project together. Sewing, painting, jewelry, science, pottery, whatever. Perhaps even take an active class together – dance, Pilates, Zumba, etc. Or volunteer somewhere fun (like building sets for local theater). Play cards or board games as a family. Be a tourist in your hometown and go all the places you have been missing. Kids get busier as they get older. Take advantage of this tween time. Fill the void (if there is one) with something very fun. Instead of trying to match her up (quickly) with friends, make life very fun and full until they come along naturally on their own.

    • Mir

      January 10, 2018 at 9:04 am

      This is a great point! Thanks, Vickie.

  • […] Unrelated, but I am back to answering reader questions at Alpha Mom, and my latest post is up. Feel free to mail in your burning questions, […]

  • Jan

    January 10, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    So there’s an article that I love that I point people to all the time that might be helpful here, or to someone other than OP who is also worried about social stuff with kids. (And, not for nothing, but my girlfriend who is a teacher says that, bar none, social worries are the thing parents come to her to talk about.)

    The tl;dr is this: Figure out a way to gather information about a potentially distressing situation without “interviewing for pain” and maybe, in the process, empower your child.

  • KA

    January 10, 2018 at 3:04 pm

    I actually wrote to Mir about a similar issue with my daughter who was a couple of years older, than the child here, but same deal: new school, not a single friend, previously very social at the old school, and I was close to freaking out over it and trying to fix it for my daughter. I think Mir’s advice about making sure your idea of what’s going on matches your kid’s is really key. In my kid’s case, it became clear over the following year that close friends at the new school were Not Going To Happen: they all had known each other for many years, my daughter was kind of closed off from them, and 2 years on she has never spent any time with any local kids outside of school hours, BUT she is way less bothered by her lack of a social life than I was when I wrote for advice. I eventually had to make my peace with her behaving very differently than I was used to in our old environment, because she was fine with it. And I had to make sure I wasn’t creating a problem where my child didn’t see one.

    • Vickie

      January 13, 2018 at 9:52 am

      You made me remember something I had forgotten, one of my kids in high school and later in college, had friends who were acquaintances at school but she never did anything outside of school with them. By choice. Different values, habits, interests. I can think of one girl in particular that she would meet for lunch. But she would never have gotten in a car with her. Nor gone to a party with her. I can think of others where she would not even have gone to their house. This is my middle who makes friends easily. But she is very careful. In college she was very careful because she was an education major and did not want to accidentally end up with something on her record by being at the wrong place or with the wrong people.

      There is a lot to be said for a child who does not fall in with the wrong crowd just to be with someone. There is real value in choosing friends wisely even if it means few or no friends.

      My oldest makes friends slowly. And always has very few friends. But the friends he has are great. In college I told him to find things that interested him (life guarding, chess club, tennis, research). I said that if he was busy with interesting things, it would put him around people. So he went for the activity without the expectation or pressure to make friends. And then if he found one, it was a bonus. It took many years for the right girl to come along, but she did, through tennis. I remember saying to him, in undergrad – they (new potential friends) are not going to know to come knock on your door, you have to put yourself out where they can find you. And the best place for you to find them is with things you love.